Changing assumptions about women in Middle East

Editor’s Note: As part of this year’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum, many of our participants are writing posts on Markaz to share their thoughts on one of the diverse topics discussed at the Forum. We hope you will join us by watching live webcasts from Doha, Qatar, on June 1-3, 2015, or following the conversation on Twitter with #USIslam15

This decade has revealed the scores of women leading protests in Egypt, insisting on constitutional freedoms in Tunisia, and supporting Syrian families when men have joined armed groups. It has become an unspoken rule in the international aid and policy community that resilient societies in the Middle East are guided by strong women. The reality is that even if the international community has only just taken notice of Middle Eastern women and their capabilities, it does not mean those women have been absent. On the contrary, women in the Middle East have always been dynamic actors in their communities; and since the Arab Spring women have facilitated significant societal change that has forever altered the region.

My grandmother is an illiterate, petite, 70-year old Syrian woman living on the outskirts of Damascus, yet she is the heart of her family— the lifeline— and what has kept the family together in the midst of a war that has uprooted and displaced over 11 million Syrians. She, like many Syrian women, has planted a garden big enough to feed her extended family, ensuring that they are not dependent on international aid groups to survive. She rushed to seize my uncle from a checkpoint in Damascus— arguing with regime soldiers— moments before the Syrian army shipped him off to Aleppo to fight against the rebels. My maternal aunt is the sole breadwinner in her immediate family, working as an accountant and traveling almost four hours a day to and from work because her family’s survival depends on her.

Outside of my family, I have come to know brave Syrian nurses through my work with Syria Relief & Development, an organization providing humanitarian aid inside Syria. The women serving our Aleppo hospital have survived barrel bombing attacks, yet remain steadfast, treating chronically ill patients and mending the throngs of wounded civilians. I have met Alawite women who have smuggled phones and radios to non-violent peace activists, knowing regime soldiers allow them through checkpoints without hassle. A Christian friend of mine, a well-known activist, dedicates her life to working with Christian and Muslim mothers to promote messages of peace to their children. These Christian and Muslim women are providing alternative methods of education, because over five million children—the future of Syria—have been bereft of formal schooling. Without their efforts, brutality, violence, hunger, and vengeance would be the only lessons taught to Syrian’s next generation.

My work at Caerus Associates, where I manage the firm’s Syria research initiatives, has introduced me to Syrian women on the forefront of politics, development, and advocacy. These women advise UN missions and international organizations, serve as formal or informal advisors to the various Syrian political opposition coalitions, play a role on local council and local coordination committees, and lead the work of expatriate political advocacy groups.

Each year, the Brookings U.S.-Islamic World Forum highlights issues that are on the mind of civil society activists, foreign policy analysts, and residents in the region. One of the topics we hope to explore at the 2015 Forum—strategies for advancing women’s rights in an unstable Middle East —is more critical than ever before. In Syria and neighboring countries, more women are managing single-family households as men are absent from the home or have been victimized by the Syrian regime. Women entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and mothers are playing a more visible role in an increasingly interconnected, globalized Middle East where gender roles are no longer fixed in time or place. There is simply no space for such superficial restrictions in a region that is struggling simultaneously to survive violence, thwart terrorism, protest for its basic freedoms, and raise a new generation. Now and in the future, women continue to be part of the important conversations that will determine the future of their societies— in both the political and civil spheres.